Seven Design Lessons from the Portland Creative Conference

By: Citizen Inc.

September's Portland Creative Conference brought industry leaders together to discuss their greatest struggles, their life’s work, and their biggest passions. It was an afternoon filled with creatives from all different spheres: industrial design, filmmaking, screenwriting, fashion design, and more.

One of the more common themes of the day resonated with the attendees from Citizen—regardless of the creative medium you use, your career will always have high and low points. As the speakers all attested in various ways: you may not always get to work on projects you’re passionate about, but that’s just a part of growing.

A few more of our favorite takeaways:

1. Create connections; break barriers.

“When a product is done well we have an emotional relationship with it.”
Robert Brunner

Brunner creates products that resonate with people on a mass market level. We were so inspired to see that his approach and design decisions can lead to worldwide success. The worst thing we could ever do as designers is to create something that doesn’t solve a problem.

Some bonus advice from Robert Brunner at Portland Creative Conference
2. Ambiguity can be where your best work lives.

“Being comfortable in the mystery is how I work.” – Lauren Weedman

Weedman also described how you should know your fears before you start any creative project by writing them down so they don’t sneak up on you. It’s not just good creative advice—it’s good life advice.

3. Encourage and seek out empathy.

“Art is about being creatively maladjusted.” – Kevin Willmott

Willmott made a case that satire no longer hurts—that consumers want to be entertained without being challenged.

As designers and creators, it’s up to us to tackle difficult issues. We have the ability to influence media and perception: it is our charge to dismantle legacy systems and replace them with inclusive options.

Willmott reminded us that we need to be cognizant of how ideas and concepts are framed in our work. We don’t design in a vacuum—we design for humans. And, maybe one day, robots.

4. You don’t do anyone favors by being inauthentic.

“Unbecome who you’re not” – Paul Guyot

Guyot’s was a passionate story of taking a major career risk—essentially foregoing an easy salary to do the same kind of job he’d been doing—in favor of a passion project that had a 50/50 chance of succeeding. Guyot pulled back the curtain of composure and let the audience in on his most raw and vulnerable place: brokenhearted and alone but needing desperately to get the job done. Guyot reminded us that taking risks is a major part of creative life.

If you’re not changing or growing, you’re stagnating.

Paul Guyot's favorite writing advice.
5. Change to the status quo should be meaningful.

“Diversity isn’t skin color. Diversity is perspective and experience.” – Brian Michael Bendis

When Bendis chose to make Spiderman half Latino and half African American, he took a big risk, but one worth taking.

With any creative venture, you’re going to receive positive and negative feedback. But knowing which negative comments actually matter is the difference between drowning in criticism and growing as an artist. When you’re a creator like Bendis, you can’t just change a story everyone knows and loves based on a whim—you need to change it meaningfully.

6. Build it to be timeless.

“Trends are what’s ruining the [fashion] industry. I want my clothes to stay in your closet for your entire life.” – Michelle Lesniak

Lesniak’s determination, focus and fearlessness was inspiring to watch. Her discussion of how she forces herself to focus by designing her collections while on planes—without access to WiFi—definitely resonated with the Citizen team.

Trends for any industry come and go—it’s in their very definition. But building something timeless, classic and useful that goes beyond aesthetics and speaks to holistic experiences is something to aspire to.

7. What works today may not work tomorrow.

“Tenacity, faith, and commitment to our work.” – Beth Harrington on how to move forward on challenging projects.

Harrington’s story wasn’t your typical “struggle → problem solve → win.” It took her ten years to raise enough funding for her documentary. Until her newest one, she’d had no problem securing the funds she needed. But with the internet changing how people consume media, getting funding for her newest film about country music’s famous Carter family was an exercise in adapting to change.

In the design world, we have best practices to fall back on. We know the proper dimensions to use. We have color theory. But best practices are a constantly moving target—what works in 2016 may not necessarily work in 2017 or beyond. Staying sharp, paying attention and embracing change will keep our work relevant to users beyond today or tomorrow.

The design of the conference itself was commendable as well: each speaker arrived at the right time to add to or balance out the previous speaker. Serious stories, humorous stories and difficult stories all had a place. Although almost none of the speakers at the conference were in the digital design world, all of them had solid advice for creative thinkers and builders.